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10 Questions with Markus Zusak
At the age of 30, Markus Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today’s most innovative and poetic novelists. He is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature. His most recent novel, The Book Thief (Random House, $16.95 ), has been nominated for a 2006 Quill Book Award and is a favorite of the Politics and Prose Children’s Department, which collaborated to interview Markus Zusak for the store.
The Children's Department Asks Markus Zusak 10 Questions
Children’s Department: You mention Graham Greene, Sylvia Plath, and Morris West in your novel I Am the Messenger. Did you include these writers because they worked within the context of the story, or was it simply a nod to some of your literary influences?
Markus Zusak: It was a little of both. Those three writers loomed heavily while I was writing the book, and I really loved the titles of their books and poems as well. The Clowns of God, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Power and the Glory, The Bell Jar and others. I liked the idea of a town with a Clown Street, or Glory Road, and so on. Sometimes things come to you and you just use them because you like them.
CD: The Book Thief is a remarkable novel about a tremendously painful subject, the Holocaust. How did you keep the text from becoming overpowered by the horrors of the topic? How did you handle your own emotions while you were writing the book?
MZ: I focus on the story. The word Holocaust is only something that’s become prominent since the book has been released. I actually never looked at the book as a Holocaust novel or a World War Two novel. While I was writing, I was asking, ‘Does the story work? Do the characters work? I guess it’s a case of story first, subject second.
CD: Why did you choose Death as the narrator for The Book Thief? Which came first, the voice of the narrator or the identity?
MZ: The identity of Death was there from the beginning, and there were two turning points when it came to tone and style. The first was nine months into writing, when I went back to the beginning and wrote the first aside: ‘Here is a small fact: You are going to die.’ That gave me the tone I wanted, and by default, I had the unusual trait of cordoning off small sections for Death to whisper in the reader’s ear.
The second turning point was when I realised that Death should be afraid of humans, because he is on hand to see all of the incomprehensible things we do. It gave me the idea that he tells this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it. Also, the irony that Death is afraid of humans really appealed to me.
CD: The Book Thief was published as an adult novel in Australia and as a young adult novel in the United States. Which was your intended audience? Do you think the book’s distribution as a young adult title limited its audience in the States?
MZ: I actually thought no-one was going to read it, so I just wrote the book for me. That’s why all of the great things that have happened to the book have surprised me so much. I’m not really concerned about the Young Adult categorization. As far as I can see, the book has ended up in the hands of the right people.
CD: The Book Thief is an intensely visual novel. What made you decide to include so many pictures, diagrams, and bold text, and do you think this is a technique that you will use in future work?
MZ: I wanted Death to view the world slightly differently to the way we do, and I liked the thought that this book would be unlike any other. I didn’t go out of my way to make it different, but again, I just recognized the ideas, asked if they fit the story, and left them in. I think my next book will use similar methods. I’m interested in the way stories are delivered, from the overall structure to they way the words look on the page, so there will definitely be a lot of thought put into style, structure and the visual aspects of the book.
CD: Of all the characters you have invented, do you have a favorite? How did you create that character, and is the character based on a real person in any way?
MZ: I think Rudy is my favourite character (from The Book Thief). I loved him from the moment he painted himself black and pretended to be Jesse Owens. I cried the most for Rudy as I was writing. He is 80% fiction, with a few splashes of my father. For example, my dad stopped going to Hitler Youth, the same way Rudy did. He was also hand-picked to join a selective school for Nazis and his father was sent to war for refusing to hand him over.
From a more comedic angle, I feel like the best reason for I am the Messenger existing is because of The Doorman. I loved that old dog who wouldn’t move from the door.
CD: What were your favorite books as a teenager? Please mention a few.
MZ: My Brother Jack (an Australian classic by George Johnston) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Peter Hedges). Also, any high school kid in the public school system in Sydney was given a healthy diet of S.E Hinton.
CD: What music are you listening to right now? What book is by your bed?
MZ: Morrisey’s new album. There’s a song on it called ‘Life is a Pigsty’ which is brilliant. The book by my bed is actually a pile of books: The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon), Shantaram (David Gregory Roberts) and The Glass Canoe (David Ireland). The pile grows quicker than I can read them.
CD: Congratulations on your new baby! What are some of her favorite books?
MZ: She is already a huge Doctor Seuss fan. Green Eggs and Ham is popular, and so is The Big Brag. Even if Nikita gets miserable, I just keep reading, for my own sake! We also just started reading The Neverending Story.
CD: We can’t wait for your next publication. What are you working on?
MZ: My new book is still in the very early stages. It’s called Bridge of Clay, about a boy who builds a bridge and wants it to be perfect. We’ll see how we go, I guess. It’s been great talking to you. Thanks for having me!